WASHINGTON -- President Clinton heads today for Atlanta to lead a conference that will seek answers to problems in the American economy -- answers that may provide a hint of the president's own re-election chances.
In two years, Mr. Clinton has presided over an economy in which productivity has increased, unemployment has declined, inflation has stayed in check, and the budget deficits have declined as a percentage of the gross domestic product.
Yet many Americans are worried, if not scared, and White House economists say they know why: Too many of the jobs being created are low-wage, service-oriented positions; benefits are being reduced; and wage increases are small.
Consequently, after-tax, inflation-adjusted family income is declining. So the average American family has less disposable income than at this time last year. That's an ominous situation for a president seeking re-election, Mr. Clinton's economic advisers privately concede.
Family income rose during most of Ronald Reagan's years in office but has remained stagnant or has fallen during the succeeding two administrations. Many political economists believe that what happens to family income drives the answer to another number watched carefully by political operatives. It is the answer to a familiar polling question: Is the country on the right track or the wrong track?
Traditionally, a president gets in trouble if the wrong-track figure hits 50 percent. Today, it is about 60 percent, with 30 percent saying the country is on the "right" track.
"If one is to believe the political science research, his election completely depends on increasing family income," said Daniel Mitchell, an economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Tomorrow's meeting, the first of four regional economic conferences, is patterned after the two-day economic summit in December 1992 in Little Rock, Ark., during Mr. Clinton's transition period before his inauguration. Those who tuned in -- the sessions were televised in full -- saw 329 economists, labor leaders, business executives, small-business owners, college professors and plain working folks exchanging ideas about the economy.
They also saw a president-elect who seemed eminently knowledgeable about a host of complex economic subjects and who was at ease speaking extemporaneously. Mr. Clinton also fleshed out his economic theories, which centered on shrinking the federal budget deficit while "investing" heavily in people in the form of increased government spending for poor children, job retraining and education.
The conference, the first stop on a Southern swing that will take the president to Florida, Haiti and eventually Arkansas, is meant to take some attention away from congressional Republicans -- and to duplicate the success of the Little Rock summit.
What is different 2 1/2 years later is that Mr. Clinton's earlier economic theories have been implemented, and he now has a record to defend.
The first panel will provide an overview of the economy in the Southeast region, said John Emerson, a White House aide. The second panel will be "working folks" who will discuss the pet Clinton administration issues of child care, tax credits for the working poor, family leave, and what happens to a family's health care when a provider loses his or her job.
The third panel will discuss innovations in job retraining and education; the fourth, moderated by Vice President Al Gore, will deal with such issues as empowerment zones, investments in technology and Mr. Gore's "reinventing government" task force, which announced another round of budget cuts yesterday.
To Mr. Mitchell, all that sounds like a familiar Democratic approach to the economy.
"What they are trying to do -- increase productivity -- is exactly right," he said. "But we argue that government job-training programs don't generally work and [cutting capital gains taxes] leads to capital formation, new companies and new jobs."
But support for Mr. Clinton's approach came from an unlikely corner yesterday. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, spoke positively about Mr. Clinton's economic record.
"He's had, frankly, a better economy than I thought he'd have," Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Clinton's aides, in the same spirit, acknowledged that they don't have all the answers.
"We've emphasized that there are long-term problems that confront the economy, that continue to confront the economy, and particularly problems that show up in the form of pressures on working families, on their incomes and on their employment prospects," said Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chairwoman of the president's National Economic Council. "There are no easy answers to these long-term structural problems. And the president wants to continue his dialogue . . . to try to learn what's working, what isn't working, what more we can do."